Rad plaid and PVC pleats: what lies beneath the modern kilt
The traditional Scottish skirt has moved into the 21st century, writes Christopher Scanlon
T is a bitterly cold summer’s day along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and tourists mill about under the stern eyes of the great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith and David Hume. Many of the shops on this stretch are devoted to all things Scottish, or at least the kitsch of Scotland’s past that appeals to tourists.
At least one designer on the Royal Mile, though, has his eye on the future. The mission of Howie R. Nicholsby of kilt shop Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmakers (57-61 High St) is to bring the kilt into the 21st century. Look beyond the traditional tartan kilts at the front of the shop and you’ll spy kilts made from velvet, silk, leather and even silver PVC. The PVC number was Nicholsby’s first attempt at making 21st Century Kilts, a line designed to transform the garment into everyday wear for any occasion.
I knew at the time that not many men were wearing PVC, me included,’’ he says. It was more a statement: take a traditional outfit and give it a modern twist.’’
Nicholsby’s experiments in kilt-making began during his gap year in Israel when he started wearing a camouflage-print kilt lower and looser than the traditional high-waisted kilt. It was there that he had the idea of making a hipster kilt, shorter in length than the traditional high-waisted variety.
Returning from Israel, he went to work for his father’s company as special projects co-ordinator. With some cash he’d saved, he started paying the kiltmaker a bit of overtime to make kilts for him. Now he sells everything from pinstripe kilt suits to casual denim kilts.
And Nicholsby practises what he preaches. It’s rare to find him in anything other than a kilt. I’ve got one pair of combat trousers and trackie bottoms for doing the gardening . . . and around the house, I wear shorts and a dressing gown. I’m not a fan of being held in any more,’’ he says with a grin.
Nicholsby even has a cycling kilt made from rip-stop nylon with reflective tape sewn into the pleats. But he admits to wearing cycling shorts underneath in case of wind gusts.
The response to Nicholsby’s quest to make the kilt a part of the modern man’s wardrobe hasn’t all been positive. He points to a rainbow-coloured tartan that split the Tartan Society — one of the organisations that registers new tartans — because it was based on the Gay Nation flag.
It’s called the Rainbow. One guy in the organisation was fully aware of what it was and put it past the older guy. It got registered, and gained publicity and the older guy found out what the rainbow flag is. It’s his own ignorance. If you go to any gay community and gay pride event, you see the rainbow.’’
Nicholsby is far from an anti-traditionalist, though. He comes from a long line of kiltmakers. His grandmother taught his grandfather how to make kilts and they went into business after World War II. He insists on making kilts by hand in the traditional way; most are made to customers’ specification from fabrics he commissions. Their preferred suppliers are also British, as part of an effort to support local industry.
He’s also not averse to using modern legal tools to protect tradition. He’s working with Scottish member of the European Parliament Alyn Smith on a Protected Geographical Indicator for the Scottish kilt.
PGIs apply to products such as champagne. Sparkling wine can only be called champagne, for example, if it is made in that region of France. In the same way, if the kilt indicator is successful, it will mean a kilt can only be called Scottish if it is hand-sewn and made of pure wool in Scotland. The wool could be woven in China, but if you’re going to go to the effort of hand-sewing it and making it in Scotland, you can still call it a Scottish kilt,’’ Nicholsby says.
His pragmatic approach to melding tradition and the modern world extends to that age-old conundrum of what to wear under a kilt. I still wear underwear. I’m quite honest about that,’’ he admits. I only really go commando for special occasions such as weddings or parties.’’ Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University, Melbourne.
Prices vary from about £275 ($645) for a denim kilt to £1250 for leather. A pinstripe and plain wool kilt suit package, including kilt, jacket, waistcoat, socks and a specially designed 21st Century Kilt pin, is about £865. All kilts can be made with detachable pockets; shipping is extra. If you can’t make it to the shop for a personal fitting, the website explains what measurements are required and how to take them. More: www.21stcenturykilts.com.
Kilt by association: Scottish garb is moving on